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Parkway tolls: A taxing question

Column by Fran Wood, Star Ledger, July 29, 2001 (text in black)
Rebuttal by Jim Padykula, CAT webguy (text in blue)

If you've commuted on New Jersey's highways for any length of time, you've probably noticed that every year it takes a little longer to reach your destination.

The reason, of course, is more cars. With cars the preferred mode of transportation in this state - sometimes justified, sometimes not - congestion affects virtually every major artery. Short of cutting the number of cars on our roads, there's little we can do about it.

Unless we're talking about the Garden State Parkway, of course, where we're now hearing we can magically become decongested through the elimination of toll stations.

CAT: Christie Whitman sold us the $488 million E-ZPass system by calling it "the solution to traffic nightmares on toll roads" (Star Ledger, 4/3/97). Now, if Whitman call something that "speeds" half the cars through the tollbooths at 5 mph the "solution to traffic nightmares", why can't we expect more from removing the tollbooths altogether? Bottom line: no tollbooths = 500 million fewer stops each year.

Where we're hearing this, no surprise, is from the gubernatorial candidates. One of them, anyway. So far, Democratic candidate Jim McGreevey has said only that he would look at eliminating the Parkway tolls. But he may not be able to hold that line for long, because his Republican rival Bret Schundler has already vowed to eliminate tolls altogether.

CAT: Fran was right. McGreevey eventually did propose a 7-year plan to eliminate Parkway tolls. However, it was one of the first promises he reneged on after being elected Governor.

On the night of his primary victory, Schundler punctuated this promise with, "How do you like them apples?"

As a campaign issue, this plays well to the folks in the cheap seats: You can't lose if you promise people something for nothing. But this one isn't a freebie. Eliminating Parkway tolls doesn't eliminate the tab for maintaining the road, it just changes who picks it up. If tolls were eliminated, that would be all of us instead of just those who use the Parkway.

CAT: Of course it's not a freebie, but it will save hundreds of millions of dollars. And yes, it would mean all would have to pay for it, making it as fair as every other toll-free road. Why does that offend you? They pay the same taxes, but Parkway drivers have paid billions above and beyond what toll-free drivers pay. If you really can't picture NJ without tolls, then at least move them to another road for the next 50 years and let someone else pay their "fair share".

And by the way, no one who knows the Parkway thinks eliminating tolls would make more than the smallest dent in traffic delays.

CAT: But it would be better and a whole lot cheaper than E-ZPass.

But first, the fairness issue.

When the Legislature established the Highway Authority in 1952, the Parkway was conceived as a road that would be supported and maintained by tolls, and that's precisely how it has operated. Take away the nearly $200 million collected at the toll booths, and the cost of running the Parkway must be shifted to all New Jersey residents - including the 40 percent of us who rarely or never use it.

CAT: It absolutely is a fairness issue, and Ms. Wood has no intension of being fair. Fran seems to have a problem with her tax dollars going to the Parkway, but no problem with accepting Parkway taxpayer's money to keep her roads toll-free.

You make it sound like the tolls were conceived first. But the road was conceived first, and tolls were only added when they could not secure the funding. But why not try to find a better way to fund it now?

Also, I get lots of comments from people who were around in the 50's saying that they were promised that tolls would be removed when the road was paid for. Are they lying? Or do you think it's possible that politicians told people tolls would be removed? Where can I find newspaper articles from the 50's?

According to a recently released study by Donald Scarry of New Jersey Economics, additional consequences of eliminating Parkway tolls would include:

1. Forfeiting $50 million a year collected from out-of-state motorists and shifting that bill to the taxpayers of New Jersey.

CAT: First, more than $50 million is wasted by collecting tolls, so NJ residents are still losing.

Second, the $488 million E-ZPass contract went to an out of state company, MFS Technologies of Omaha, taking our money OUT of state.

Third, out of state motorists buy gas here, so they are being doubly taxed just like we are.

Forth, is the percentage of out of state drivers on the Parkway any different from toll free roads like Rt. 78, 80, 287, and 295? I want to know how much we're losing in out of state revenue by not having tolls there.

Fifth, if 25% of tolls are paid by out of state motorists, then why not quadruple the toll on the state line (to $1.40) and remove all the tolls in the middle? Then they'd be paying ALL of it. Oh wait; didn't NJ just do this at several state crossings? Why not use that money to remove Parkway tolls? Sure, it wouldn't be fair to the people at other state crossings, but at least the money would come from tolls, which should make Fran happy.

One more thing - why do people always want to make out of state residents pay more than their fair share? We are the UNITED States, aren't we? Don't we want to be treated fairly when traveling in other states?

2. Shifting the Parkway's bond obligations (close to $1 billion in principal and interest payments) to New Jersey taxpayers.

CAT: Yes, the Parkway has a large bond debt (...hey, tolls are expensive), but God forbid they ever pay it off. Otherwise, it would take less than 1¢ in gas tax to maintain the Parkway (...and NJ siphons off more than that to the general fund). The debt is one of their best excuses to keep tolls, so why should they even try to pay it off? The Parkway even gave $millions away to other roads just to keep the debt artificially high.

Come on, Fran, THINK. Is that how much roads cost, or are they padding the bill to keep their plum jobs? If you believe one road can add that much to our tax bill, then think of how much we could lower it by adding tolls to other roads. Why don't you play reporter and check some of that "Parkway Math"?

3. Jeopardizing, through loss of revenue, the planned $175 million project to widen lanes at the Driscoll Bridge (a project that would have the greatest impact on traffic congestion).

CAT: Keep one tollbooth up at the Driscoll Bridge, charge $1, and remove it the minute it collects $175 million.

According to Scarry's report, paying off the Parkway debt tab alone would add $200 to $330 per household to our tax bill.

CAT: If you're so offended by $200 to $330 per household, then why aren't you offended by how much tolls waste? The $500 million for E-ZPass and $70 million annually (on the Parkway alone) has cost us over $1 billion already. Don't you wish you had some of that back for the Driscoll Bridge? That's over $100 for every man, woman, and child in NJ (...I'm not sure how that translates into "households"). Plus the collection costs NEVER go away. I have NO problem with my tax dollars paying for roads, but to waste so much collecting money for a single road is a crime.

By the way, how much have Parkway drivers paid in transportation taxes over the last 5 decades - money that went to toll-free roads? It seems to me they're owed a ton of back taxes - more than enough to cover the bond debt.

Proponents of toll-elimination insist we'll get federal funding without tolls. But we already get federal funding for the Parkway, says Dennis Ingoglia, spokesman for the New Jersey Highway Authority. Would we get more? Look at history. New Jersey already sends truckloads of money to Washington, and for every $1 we send, we get back a mere 66 cents.

CAT: Funny, I got a letter from Mr. Ingoglia (8/10/00). He didn't mention anything about Federal funding (...which should upset Ms. Wood that her taxes ARE going to the Parkway), but Mr. Ingoglia did mention that the Parkway does "contribute $10 million a year toward the upkeep of tax supported roadways". Of course, Fran only minds when her money is used on other people's roads, and not vice versa.

But Ms. Wood never answered the question: "Will we get more?". Our government throws $billions at projects trying to make small dents in traffic delays: Additional lanes, E-ZPass, High-Speed E-ZPass, HOV lanes, Traffic Cam web site, etc. How about for once we try something blatantly obvious that actually SAVES money, like removing barriers? Toll removal absolutely qualifies for a congestion & pollution reduction program. Has anyone even tried asking the FHWA for funds to execute it? Apparently not, if we're only getting back 66 cents on our tax dollar.

Proponents also will tell you the Parkway was always intended to be self-sustaining after the initial funding bongs were paid off. That's another myth. It was conceived as a toll road, and has never received a penny from taxes - not even for capital improvements, all of which have been made by issuing additional bonds.

CAT: Which is it - did the Parkway "never receive a penny of our taxes", or does it "get federal funding" as you stated in the previous paragraph? And again, why do so many people who were around back then say they were told the barriers would be removed?

Rest-stop revenues, say proponents, will offset a lot of the maintenance costs - which is laughable when you think about how many sodas and T-shirts you'd have to sell to net $200 million a year.

CAT: Fran, are you listening? We don't have to replace the entire $200 million if we eliminate tolls - we wouldn't need the $70 million wasted on collecting it. And we're not saying T-shirts and soda will fund the Parkway. We're saying the Parkway has a revenue source that most toll-free roads don't have - rest stop rent.

Also, you falsely imply all $200 million is for maintenance. Actually, only $39 million is, and we even think that is grossly exaggerated (...like any government agency, use it or loose it). CAT learned that the NJDOT general maintenance calculation for highways is $2,500.00 per lane, per mile, per year (see CAT PLAN). If applied to the Parkway, maintenance calculates out to less than $10 million per year. Which is it - $10 million or $39 million? Probably somewhere in the middle, but a good comparison would be to see what Rt. 80 spends per mile.

CAT also found that revenues from the restaurants and gas stations are over $12 million per year (see CAT PLAN), which IS a lot of T-shirts and sodas. So even using the Parkway's inflated $39 million number, $12 million is still 30% of that, which I think qualifies as "a lot of the maintenance costs". In other words, we wouldn't even need a full "fair share" of our taxes to pick up the maintenance costs.

The Garden State Parkway, as presently operated, is one of those government projects that works. Besides being one of the most beautiful and well-maintained highways in the country, it has always paid for its maintenance and improvements. The road's safety/fatality rate, according to Ingoglia, "is better than any other highway in the state and better than the national average."

CAT: No, Rt. 80 is a government project that works - the Parkway wastes billions. But it is a well-engineered road, and 5 decades of toll collecting has more than paid for that part of it. However, I constantly hear people say (and personally agree with them) that the most dangerous part of the Parkway is the toll plazas. Fortunately most people are slowing down by then, so you don't get fatalities like the horrific accident that caused Connecticut to end their tolls. But I would like to see accident statistics to find out where most accidents happen. I'll bet they are at the tollbooths. Are there any reporters out there with connections to get that information? ...Fran?

He also notes the road has been cited by the Audubon Society for its "unbroken ribbon of green, which offers food and refuge to migratory birds".

CAT: And people wonder where New Jersey jokes come from. Seagulls at the rest stops don't count. Maybe we can rename it the "Garden State Parkway Wildlife Preserve", and then we can use open spaces money to fund it instead of tolls.

Yes, it's a nice road, but I'm not there to have a picnic on the median. I want roads to TAKE me to where I want to go, and toll-free roads do that just fine. Plus the Parkway does just as much to increase sprawl and reduce bird habitat as the toll-free highways. But maybe that's your point - if that's going to happen, then we might as well leave a nice green patch for the birds in the middle of the lanes.

Yes, it's congested. Yes, there are slowdowns and stoppages at rush hours and on summer weekends. But the big problem is not that drivers have to stop for toll booths, they would be slowed or stopped anyway, from sheer volume.

The most potentially successful congestion reducing enterprise would be to install High-Speed E-ZPass, which would remove all the toll booths across the middle of the road, diverting cars not equipped with E-ZPass to the extreme left and right. Cars equipped with E-ZPass wouldn't even have to slow down.

CAT: In the previous two paragraphs Ms. Wood says:

dot Removing the tollbooths wouldn't make a big difference in the congestion.

dot Removing the tollbooths would be the most successful congestion reducing enterprise, ...if high speed E-ZPass is installed.

It sounds like Fran measures the success of a project just like the government does - by how much money is spent. Why would removing the tollbooths help congestion only if hundreds of millions of dollars is spent? Maybe because High Speed E-ZPass still has tollbooths on the sides making some cars stop, which would probably make High Speed E-ZPass users FEEL like they were going faster.

And what if High Speed E-ZPass doesn't work as well as Ms. Wood expects - can we get our money back and then try no tolls? Or should we spend more on a newer, better E-ZPass? Or maybe Fran expects all those E-ZPass billing errors to go away with the High Speed system. I got email from someone in Oklahoma saying their High Speed E-Zpass makes errors, and another anonymous email from someone working in the NJ E-ZPass violations bureau suggesting that everyone check their statements.

Cost? Roughly $100 million. But you'd get that from selling bonds.

CAT: Just slap it on the old credit card, huh Fran? And then the bond debt and interest payments will be even higher, which will make it even harder to remove the tolls. (...see Donald Scarry study, #2).

Eliminating tolls, on the other hand, will not change traffic congestion much, and will levy a tax on all of us.

CAT: Eliminating tolls WILL reduce congestion, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Eliminating tolls WILL save a lot of money. And eliminating tolls WILL treat Parkway taxpayers the same as all the toll-free road users, like you Fran.

So, getting back to Schundler's question, my answer is: No, I don't care much for them apples. They look too much like the ones the wicked stepmother tried to serve Snow White.

CAT: Reduce congestion, pollution, aggravation, save money, and treat taxpayers more fairly -yeah, I like them apples. But maybe a wicked stepmother wouldn't.